Garth Cecil Thornton Interview
Today is the 1st May 2018. We’re going to interview Garth Thornton who started his life in Clive. He’s going to tell us about the life and times of the Thornton family and his family. Garth, would you like to start?
Yes, yes. My grandfather, my father’s father, [Samuel] came from Yorkshire in the 1860s and established a general store at Clive in 1866. Actually, it had been established a little before by a person called John Bray, but Samuel bought it from him. He actually sold the store to one of Dad’s brothers, Percy, and later it was sold to another brother, Harold. But that store was destroyed by fire in 1925 or 1926. I have a picture of that, but it can be seen on the noticeboard at the little park by the bridge at Clive. It gives the details of my grandfather and one of his sons, and it tells a little bit of the story of two stores.
Yeah, so Thorntons have been in business in Clive for a long time. The one store was burnt down. The other one wasn’t, it was run by one of Dad’s elder brothers who bought it and he ran the store until 1953 which was an important year for me – it was the year I was married. I don’t know how much detail you would like about the store …
What did he sell? Everything, I believe.
Originally it was everything, but after the fire it was really continued as the drapery portion and that was my father’s business, although drapery … it was wider than that, you know, he sold lots of things. You know, if somebody wanted a bicycle he’d get a bicycle. And he sold the periodicals – you know, the Women’s Weeklys and things like that. Menswear, womenswear … that was his life.
‘Cause those days of course, Clive was quite different, having the full Ngaruroro River running right behind …
… where you lived and behind the store. And my grandfather used to go to Clive with a coach to pick up people from the ferry that were ferried across Waitangi.
Yes, yes. It certainly is an awful long time ago. Clive suffered from serious floods in 1887, 1893 and 1897 – right back as far as that. And of course in the thirties there was a large flood the other side of Napier and also in Clive. I remember it being in my father’s shop up a couple of feet, and most of the houses in Clive had water in them … the church. Our house didn’t because that was the highest point in Clive. It wasn’t visible, it just looked flat.
What number was that house? That was the house that still stands today, doesn’t it?
Yes, yes it does. Well it didn’t have a number in those days – there were three Thorntons there. Dad’s parents had the old house, which is beautifully maintained now and the garden too. I don’t know who owns it, but he sold the land on each side to two of his sons and Dad bought land from him and built that house about 1930 I think, I’m not sure of the exact date.
So from there you went to primary school at Clive, down School Road.
Where was the school? Was it down where it is now?
Yes it was. ‘Course the building was pretty old style then. I think it’s gone now.
So you were down amongst the Burns and the Gregorys?
Yes. Gladys Gregory worked in the house for my mother virtually … oh, for countless years, and was really … not only worked for her, but was a friend really, and a very nice woman.
So what was it like growing up in Clive those days? It was only a village really, wasn’t it?
It was a village. I imagine that the primary school probably had about a hundred people, but in the rooms there was Standard 1 … the Primers had one room, Standard 1 and 2 another, 3 and 4 and so on. But I think it was a happy school as far as I remember.
Can you remember any of your teachers?
Well, I know one year my teacher was one of the Cushing women – Cushings were a Clive family – and she was married, she was Mrs Howell at that time. The lady that taught us in the Primers, of whom we were petrified, was I think Harvey-Smith, or some name like that.
There were several churches in Clive, it was amazing …
Three churches. And I think in those days they were all fairly well attended and now there’s one.
Well we know where another one of them is – one of them’s down at Ken Kiddle’s orchard, isn’t it?
Oh, yes – yes, that’s right.
And I think the other one went to Neville Norwell’s offices in Heretaunga Street.
Yes, the one in Heretaunga Street is the Anglican Church, and the one that is now a residence is the Catholic Church.
They’ve all spread their wings and changed their …
Did you play any sports when you were at Clive?
At Clive … well, I think all kids play sports. The school had a [chuckle] … well, it was interesting, at the back of the school there was a thing called the mud flat and it was just mud.
And you know, kids played rounders there … all the kids’ games of chasing and sort of elementary rugby.
And of course those days your mobility round was by bike, or foot?
I had a bike. I’m not sure how I … when I was very young I must have walked to school, but I had a bike from the age of about eight or nine or something.
And so from there you went to Napier Boy’s High?
I did, yes, in the bus … bus boy. And I was at Napier Boys’ High for three years, and thereafter I went to Scots College in Wellington as a boarder for two years.
So at what stage did you decide to take the law on as an occupation?
Well it wasn’t that I really had a great passion to be a lawyer, but I had done quite well at school and I was intending to go to university. And I certainly wasn’t strong on the scientific stage and law just seemed to be a direction to go in. And subsequently of course, I found that there are a lot of different directions you can go with a legal qualification although at that stage all I thought of was sort of private practice in a firm.
And I know today you have a love of tennis. Did you play tennis as a young man?
Yes – we had a tennis court at the back of our house, a grass tennis court, and I played there with anybody I could find to play with.
To hit the ball back to you.
I’ve always enjoyed tennis and I still do, still play twice a week.
Now just coming back to your family – did you have any brothers and sisters?
I had two sisters who were a lot older than I am. They were … my elder sister, Grace, was eleven years older than I am, and the younger of my two sisters, Jean, was nine years older than I am, so in a sense they were more like aunts than sisters, they were so much older than I am. And they both went off to boarding school and subsequently training college. So their lives were taking different directions.
So they were teachers?
Yes, they were.
So after Scots College you went to university – which university?
Victoria University in Wellington, and I was there quite a while. [Chuckle] I started doing a law degree and I had the very good fortune of becoming a law clerk at a very good firm, Buddle, Anderson, Kirkcaldie & Co. And half way through my law degree I took a year off from that and did an MA full time at Victoria in English, and then went back to Buddle Anderson – they were prepared to have me back. And after I qualified I became a partner there – junior partner of course. But before that stage I had married.
Now where did you meet Judith?
[Chuckle] A friend … she was a blind date. [Chuckle] It’s rather funny to look back on, but this was for a Law Faculty ball at the old Majestic Cabaret in Wellington and she was a Wellington girl and that was the beginning of a very long and lovely association.
Judith, where did you grow up, and where were you born?
Judith: Well, I grew up in Karori, Wellington, and my father worked for the Post Office and he was never transferred as it happened so I always lived in Karori. He had grown up in Taihape and become a Post Office message boy at the age of twelve, I think it was – no secondary schooling for our parents in those days, which I think’s important for young to know. And he worked in the Post Office for the whole of his career. He ended up becoming Director General of Post & Telegraphs for New Zealand. A cousin of mine made the point that in those days your education took place actually after you left school and the Post Office and the Railways and such big organisations did do a lot to train people. I mean I know there’s been a revolution since then. Anyway I had two brothers and a sister and we all went to school in Wellington, or Karori first.
What were their names?
Well, I had … my eldest brother was Graham, the next one was named Austin, and my younger sister was Vivienne. So they’ve all passed away, two of them with Alzheimers and one with Dementia, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.
So how did you meet this gentleman?
Well Garth lived at Weir House, and he met someone named Bill Sheat, and I went to school with someone named Jenny Leicester, and they introduced us – oh, we went on a blind date. Was it at the Majestic Cabaret?
Garth: It was. A Law Faculty ball at the Majestic Cabaret.
Judith: [Chuckle] Is that what it was? Yes. So that would have been 1952.
Garth: We were married in ‘53, weren’t we?
Judith: So it would be sooner than that.
Garth: Yeah, ‘51 probably.
Judith: And Garth was twenty-three and I was twenty.
Garth: When we married.
Judith: His parents thought that was a bit … young, [laughter] but we survived it, didn’t we?
Garth: We sure did.
Judith: And then of course we embarked on our OE, taking two little children along. [Chuckle]
Now these two little children, what were their names?
Well our elder son is Roger and our daughter is Rosalind, and our younger son was born in Nairobi and he’s Nicholas. So … they don’t always … well, they don’t use those names – Nicholas is Nick, and Rosalind is Ros. And we had to pack them off to boarding school because we wanted them to be New Zealanders, and they are loyal New Zealanders although they’ve lived overseas themselves. So we didn’t give them quite the right upbringing because …
And at this stage, grandchildren?
Yes, Garth can tell you about that though, can’t you?
Garth: Well I can do.
Well that’s wonderful, thank you.
Judith: Just a little bit of background.
Garth: Yes, well that filled that in.
You’re going to tell us about your grandchildren, just to fill that in at this stage.
Oh, yes, yes. Roger, the elder boy, has one son. And we have four grandchildren and they’re all round about the same age. Roger’s son is still at university doing an MA. Rosalind has one daughter, and she is doing a law/arts degree in Sydney. Our daughter is a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, and her husband is also a professor [chuckle] at the same university so it’s not surprising that the girl is quite bright.
And Nick has two daughters, both at university in England, and both graduating this year. The elder one is going to continue her studies; the younger one would dearly love to be a doctor but it’s pretty hard to get admission. All our four grandchildren are really lovely, we think.
Now Garth will give us some of the earlier history of his family in Clive.
Yes, it goes back to a man called John Bray who was also involved in Havelock North’s early days. He was my Granny Thornton’s uncle, and originally settled at Havelock North where he built the first hotel. After selling the Clive shop which he did to my grandfather, he retired to Napier. The general store was sold to Percy, one of Dad’s brothers, and after his death it was sold to another brother Harold, so there were quite a number of brothers in that family. But that was destroyed by fire in 1925 or 1926. The drapery portion continued to be run by another brother, John, and was later sold to my father, George. It goes back a long time, doesn’t it?
My grandfather was born in 1845 and died in 1919. He married Charlotte Sarah Worrell in 1873, and they lived in premises attached to the shop and that’s the shop where the Clive supermarket is now.
Yes, in the 1890s he built the house ‘Roseville’, which is still there and in beautiful condition – it’s been really cherished. I don’t know who owns it, but just from the road it looks great. On the adjoining paddocks two acres were sold to one brother, and another acre to my father. My grandfather was said to be a funny old fellow – he lived in a sort of a granny flat behind the house, cooked his own meals, while my grandmother and the daughter lived in the house and cared for the boys. A number of them didn’t marry, as happened in those days.
He had a farm up in Northland … my grandfather … and he went there often in the winter. He spent quite a lot of time ‘taking the baths’ as it was called at Rotorua. Granny was reputed to have never been past Waipukurau.
All the boys except one, only had primary education. He could have afforded to send them to secondary school but he sent them out to work, as happened in those days. There were two exceptions to the family – Onslow, who was sent to Napier Boys’ High School and eventually became a qualified civil engineer, and Stanley who became a mechanic. Well that’s about it of the early days. I never met this grandfather, he died before I was around, but I remember Granny … little old lady.
That’s going back a long way, isn’t it?
It certainly is.
I think you said he was born in 1845?
Long time ago, isn’t it? Yes … 1845, and died in 1919.
Yes, I remembered my Granny. She was of course, quite old when I was about. She was a small lady and she had ruled the family with a rod of iron. Each of her sons away from home had to write once a week – and they did. With a son on each side of her also, she had to be treated with respect. Sam and Charlotte attended the Hastings Brethren Church, and my uncle Harold drove them there on a Sunday – that’s not in a car of course, that’s … some sort of horse and something. Later probably … later, she attended Clive Presbyterian.
But there was no knitting on Sunday. I can remember going over at night to play draughts with her to keep her company. Draughts apparently were all right, even if you couldn’t knit. [Chuckle]
When my uncle Harold got caught in the pub after hours, it had to be kept out of the papers so she didn’t know. [Chuckle] I don’t know if she always knew what my uncle Stanley was up to – he used to have tea with uncle Harold and that family every Saturday night so that his mother couldn’t smell his breath. [Chuckle] She was really very good to us as kids, though – and she was. She died in 1941. I remember her quite well but of course I was only eleven when she died.
Tell us about your transition from a junior solicitor to your new adventure.
Oh, right. Well I had been very fortunate to be employed and a junior partner in a very well established and respected firm in Wellington. But I had to confess I was a bit bored by it. And I was always a reader and I had read one or two books about people in the Colonial Service in Africa, and I knew that there was a small number of New Zealanders recruited to the Colonial Service. And I thought I’d like to do this, and I was most fortunate in having a wonderful wife who agreed to come. We had two young children at that stage. So I applied and was interviewed by … strangely enough by the Governor-General … and I remember a very high-powered sort of body – there was a Bishop and goodness knows who – but I was eventually offered an appointment as a Crown Counsel in Tanganyika. And we went at the beginning of January 1958 when I was twenty-eight and Judy was twenty-five, and we had two young children. And we loved it.
You went into another culture that you probably weren’t familiar with, but you obviously both adapted very well?
Well yes – it was a totally different life. We were provided with a house but the standard was not great. The climate in Dar Es Salaam was not great either, it was extremely hot. But in Dar Es Salaam there was a beach at Oyster Bay, and just about every day we went to the beach after work.
I joined the legal department which at that stage was … I’m not sure … probably about sixteen people, and at the bottom there were about ten of us, Crown Counsel. All the rest of them – I was the only New Zealander – the rest were English or Irish or one or two Scots, I think, and we found them very congenial. Judy had friends amongst the wives. I enjoyed the work.
And your work – was it within the city itself, or did you travel?
We travelled. There were circuits. Tanganyika was quite a big country, you know, sort of roughly a thousand miles square. There were a number of circuits when a Judge and a Crown Counsel, a prosecutor, would go to various places and deal with prosecutions mainly – almost always prosecutions. I’ve done a few of those.
Were they speaking in English?
The language of the Court was English, but almost all the witnesses couldn’t speak English. There were interpreters and on some occasions, deep in the bush, there was double interpretation because they couldn’t find a person who could speak English. So in that case there was an interpreter speaking this tribal language and interpreting to Swahili, and another one translating from Swahili to English. And it was really quite difficult.
The point could be lost in translation, couldn’t it?
Well, that’s right. You would get the sort of situation when the two interpreters, trying to reach agreement of what was said by the witness, the two interpreters would argue about this … well, not so much argue but conduct a to-and-fro conversation that went on and on and on, and then the interpreter would say, “he says yes”.
[Laughter] So how long did you stay in Tanganyika?
I was in Tanganyika twice, but the first time we went in January ‘58 and about the middle of ‘61 I was transferred to Kenya, to Nairobi, to a separate body. I did actually return to Tanzania five years after independence, on loan from the Hong Kong Government. So it was interesting to spend the three years before independence and to go back five years after independence.
I can imagine.
So we had a lot of Tanzania, and we loved it.
So how long did you stay in Kenya?
In Kenya, we went in the middle of ‘61 and left in ‘66 I think. When we left from Tanganyika to go to Kenya, Judy was in fact pregnant and we were at that stage stationed in a little place called Monza on the shores of Lake Victoria and I was the only Crown Counsel there. But I got this promotion to Kenya, and Judy flew there with the local small plane. And he agreed to fly fairly low so that …
Not to upset her at all?
[Chuckle] Yes. Meantime, I had a little Triumph Herald and had to drive it and our two servants who’d agreed to come to Kenya with us. And I had told them that they could take all their possessions – no problem – but they had to bring them out to go into the box. They didn’t, of course, believe that if they put possessions in the box they’d ever see them again. So when the morning came for me to drive to Nairobi, which was a two day drive, they appeared with all their stuff, you know – brooms and buckets and things – you can imagine what the state of the Triumph Herald was. But they were lovely people and that’s how we got to Nairobi. That’s a major town in Kenya.
Was that Kenyatta’s ..?
Well at that stage Kenyatta would have been locked up. In ‘61 it was still run as a British colony.
I didn’t work for the Kenya Government, I worked for a body called the East African Common Services Organisation. Britain had thought that it would be good to [if] Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania cooperated, and this body was an approach to that. It ran the railways and harbours, the post and telecommunications, and some other services.
So at that stage what age would the children have been?
Well, Roger was ready for primary school. Ros was still about four I think, or something, and Nick was born just a few weeks after we got to Nairobi.
‘Cause it must have been quite unique for the children to live in these African countries?
Yeah, well that was all they knew really, and they were happy.
So from Nairobi, where was your next move to?
What happened was that the East African countries became independent, and although I was a permanent Colonial Civil Servant the new countries wanted their own people appointed. And so I could have stayed as an adviser but I didn’t, I was transferred to Hong Kong as a Crown Counsel. And after one year I was approached to see if I would be prepared to go back to Tanzania as their Chief Parliamentary Counsel in charge of drafting legislation, and Judy agreed to come and that’s what we did.
During university you took a Masters Degree in English … would this have assisted you in drafting legislation later on?
Probably. I was always interested in reading, and language and that sort of thing. As well as prosecuting in Dar Es Salaam I had tried my hand at drafting legislation and that had gone quite well. So – yes. So I was still not very competent I don’t think, but in those days you did what you could.
The law in those countries at that stage – did they have the death penalty?
I think both Kenya and Tanzania, and Uganda had the death penalty. Certainly a few people, not many but a few were hanged. But if a person was convicted and sentenced to death it was then reconsidered by the Governor and his counsel and often it might be changed to imprisonment for life.
So how long did you stay?
Two years, that was the arrangement.
So you would have had a good picture in your mind of before and after independence?
Yes, yes. Well I had wondered … I was a bit anxious about going there, taking family … wife and two little kiddies … and of course I couldn’t really discover much of how things were. But what I could discover was that I would be appreciated rather than not, and that was the case. I was very well treated.
You must have got a really great understanding of different cultures ‘cause you lived it, didn’t you?
Well we lived it and we loved it.
So from there you moved to Hong Kong again did you?
Yes, I did. But I might just mention that when we were in Dar Es Salaam the second time Judy’s sister who’s now died came to stay with us and she looked after our children while I drove Judy down to South Africa and back. I had a month’s local leave – actually, I’ve given you the wrong time – this was in the earlier time that we were in Dar Es Salaam – and I had thought that would be an exciting thing to do.
Oh, about three thousand ks [kilometres] I think.
Yeah. [Chuckle] Through goodness knows what sort of country – [chuckle] I didn’t know. I had a little DKW car – a policeman lent me his spare wheel so that I had two spare wheels. [Chuckle] And I got … just a week before I was due to go … I had a month’s leave you see, I rather chickened out. I thought you know, if something goes wrong I haven’t really got any money. [Chuckle] So I decided I’d better not go. And my boss, the Attorney-General, who was a very nice man – very senior sort of man – he sent for me, and I told him I’d decided not to go and he said, “my boy, you go. If you run out of money, send me a cable and I’ll send you some”. So I went, and nothing went wrong. It was a wonderful month.
Yes – I had to go back to the basic grade – I hadn’t got a quite senior position in Nairobi, but I didn’t want to come back to New Zealand. So I went back to square one. That worked out because I became Solicitor-General there in the end. But Hong Kong could hardly be more different from life in East Africa – even those days it was a very busy city. But we got ourselves a boat and every Sunday, or just about every Sunday, we would go across to the New Territories. We belonged to a little club, the Newhaven Yacht Club, and it was really just a means of a picnic. But I doubt whether the water’s clean enough now to swim, but in those days we would plod off, about half an hour in the boat and put the anchor down and swim.
So what was your role initially in Hong Kong?
Well the legal work was divided into three – prosecutions, civil and advisory work, and law drafting. And for some time I was on the civil and advisory side and I headed that division after a while. And then in 19 … I’m not too sure, but eventually I became Solicitor-General there, and the department was in a real growth stage. Actually at the end of my time as Solicitor-General I had probably about a hundred and ten lawyers working, responsible to me and to the Attorney-General. Effectively the Solicitor-General was the number two. But apart from running the department, I became a member of the Legislative Council and the Executive Council when I was … the times when I was acting as Attorney-General, so it was quite a responsible sort of job. We had a, the department was quite interesting in one way because of more than a hundred lawyers, roughly a quarter would have been Chinese, a quarter Australians, a quarter New Zealanders, and a quarter from UK. So we were a bit of a mixture.
Part of my job was recruitment, and most of these people were on contract for two or three years. Most of them … they enjoyed that but they didn’t want more, so we were recruiting all the time. It was a very different life from East Africa as you can imagine.
Unless you actually lived it you wouldn’t know.
No. Well, I suppose that’s right. But they were a good time of our life, but we’d had enough in the end.
How long did it take you to have had enough?
[Chuckle] I think we spent about twelve years altogether.
Oh, that’s quite a long time, isn’t it?
And then we went to Western Australia.
Right – to Perth?
To Perth. I was offered the prospect of becoming their Chief Parliamentary Counsel, and we thought ‘well, we’ll give it a go, and if we don’t like it we’ll leave’. [Chuckle] But we did like it, very much.
Yes, it’s a beautiful city, isn’t it?
The State Government was a good employer and I had very congenial colleagues. One of our friends from Hong Kong followed us … fact he got there before we did.
What was his name?
Dowling, Tony Dowling.
He wasn’t one of the local Dowlings’ sons?
No. His wife was, from here, but he’s died now. He was there longer than I was, and I spent about – roughly ten years there.
So what was the main type of work you were doing within the law there?
It was, all of it was to do with legislation submitted to the State Parliament and I was just the Chief of the department or division that drafted the legislation, so it was just in that narrow field.
So if you drafted it, did you actually give it at Parliament?
I didn’t attend. In writing – it was submitted to Parliament. Each of the states has got a Parliament and that was my job there.
So ten years beside the Swan?
Yes, roughly ten, we were there. We were happy there.
All three children went to secondary school in New Zealand, boarding school and to university in New Zealand. The boys went to St Kentigern in Auckland, and our daughter went to Marsden in Wellington. But of course we saw them for holidays.
When you left Western Australia, what happened then?
I came back here. And I had an arrangement with the Law Commission in Wellington that I would draft legislation for them, and for some years that continued. It wasn’t full time but as a consultant and I remained a consultant to the West Australian Government and drafted some legislation for them. I mean the legal systems in each of those countries were basically the same, based on the British Common … English Common Law, and with local variations of statutes.
It’s the local variations that could become problems.
[Chuckle] Oh, that’s true. That worked out all right.
You did that from Havelock North, didn’t you?
Yes I did. Yeah, we lived up Te Mata Peak Road. Well, you sold us the house I think.
I sold it for you. While you’ve both been in Havelock tennis has been an outlet for your energy, and walking?
Yes, and gardening. Tennis, walking and gardening.
Community service … the Havelock North Rotary Club?
Yes, I’ve enjoyed being … yeah.
And of course Judith’s been part of the Lusk Club?
Is Judith a tennis player too?
She used to be very keen indeed, but she has a knee problem and she had to give it up, much to her regret.
I know that you’ve travelled quite extensively outside your work, visiting your family in Switzerland and England.
Yes, we travel quite a lot. Our daughter spent many years in the States, at first as a student doing a doctorate somewhere or other, and subsequently at a university being a lecturer at university.
Is this the daughter that had the accident with the dog and damaged her leg?
Yes, it is. Yes. She is now a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. Yes, and Nick qualified in law in Auckland and practised for a while but business was his thing. And he spent some years in Scotland. He was employed by a company called SGS which was a Swiss company. They sent him to Scotland. And eventually he left SGS, and he and the big chief of SGS formed their own little company. And Nick has lived in Geneva for some years, but he’s now left and he’s going to live part of the time here and part of the time in Amsterdam with his Dutch wife.
And now you’re properly retired with Judith and your tennis and your grandchildren when they come to see you. Is there anything else you’ve forgotten to tell me about?
You’re not really interested in the technicalities are you, of my education?
Yes, of course I am. Garth’s going to give just a bit of background to his education and qualifications.
Yes. Well I went to Victoria University after school. I graduated BA in 1951, MA Honours in 1952 and LLB in 1954. I was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in New Zealand in February ‘54. I was admitted as a legal practitioner in Western Australia in 1979. I became a Queen’s Counsel in Hong Kong in 1973, and a Queen’s Counsel in Western Australia in 1985. That’s it I suppose.
Oh – well, the other thing is that I published a text book – at least it was published by Butterworths, the publishers, on legislative drafting – a first edition 1970, and subsequently three following editions, the last one in 1996. I was the author of the Statutes Title the Laws of New Zealand, published by Butterworths. And … no, that’s about it really.
Thank you very much, Garth, you’ve certainly had a very interesting life.
Yes – yes, we have.
And thank you for that interview.
Garth has several things behind his name, like an OBE, a QC, MA, LLB. Would you like just to tell us something about those?
Well I became a QC in Hong Kong – at the time I was Solicitor-General, and I subsequently became a Queen’s Counsel, QC, in Western Australia when I was their Parliamentary Counsel. The OBE I received at the end of my time in Hong Kong and that’s it I suppose. I was Solicitor-General in Hong Kong for quite a few years and Parliamentary Counsel in Western Australia for quite a few years.
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper